1/08/2017 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Ben Love ~
I waited until my wife was asleep. When I was sure she was, I gathered all my old journals--the ones that had documented my tenure as a Christian--and threw them in the back seat of my car (along with two other items that I will refer to shortly). I then drove 36 miles in the dark until I came to a freshly re-asphalted parking lot. I parked the car, lit my pipe, and then walked across the asphalt in the blustery autumn cold toward the familiar building standing soundlessly in the night. I amused the romantic part of my personality by pretending the building had been waiting for my homecoming. “I'm back,” I whispered as I approached the front doors. I knew they would be locked, but that was okay--I had no intention of setting foot inside the building. I just stood outside of it for a long while, meditating on my journey and everything that had occurred since the last time I had walked through those doors. I then paused to recall just when that had been. It took me a minute, but I soon remembered the last time I had been here…
September of 1999.
Yes, I was back at my old church; the one where my sad trek through Christianity had begun seventeen years prior. So much had occurred here. I recalled the day the pastor's tooth had inexplicably fallen out of his mouth in the middle of a sermon. I recalled the evening the Lansing twins and I had shared a pizza in the front steps. One of them had put her arm in mine later that same night. I remembered with some laughter the time Christopher and I had broken into the church late at night and camped out in the sanctuary so we could “sleep in the house of God.” Then there was the evening I had to stand before the entire congregation and give my very first public testimony. What a child I had been, so naïve and so nervous, having no idea that soon I would be leading churches of my own. It seemed so long ago…
When my pipe bowl was spent, I sighed, walked back to my car, and retrieved the box of journals. I also grabbed the other two items I had brought: a small canister of lighter fluid and a book of matches. I then took all of these things over to the children's playground that sat at the far end of the parking lot. My hope was that the missing piece to my little puzzle was still there, and I was pleased to find that it was. Next to the pavilion in the center of the playground there had always stood one of those old metal barrel trash cans. When I approached the pavilion, I saw it sitting there. Checkmate, I thought. I looked inside and found only a tiny amount of trash. That was good. Then, with a strange sense of calm, I dumped the box of journals into the can. They fell with a satisfying thud. The wind picked up and I suddenly felt a chill, but that was okay. I knew that in just a moment there would be plenty of heat. Smiling, I emptied the entire canister of lighter fluid into the trash can, drenching the journals and any trash underneath. A certain part of me then wondered if I should speak a few words or observe a moment or two of silence. Nah, I thought, striking a match and tossing it in the can. There was a rapid and pleasing whoosh as flames took flight into the night. And I stood there stoically with my hands in my coat pockets as all my journals burned. I basked in the heat, smelling that familiar scent of charred paper, watching the totality of my Christian experience being reduced to nothing more than simple chemical combustion. I had gone through so much anguish and adversity, experienced so much confusion and bitter disappointment and fought so many battles with myself and with my imaginary God, and now it was all coming to an end. A door had shut behind me seventeen years prior, and now it was finally open again. Everything I had built in the meantime was now being beautifully undone. All it took was some lighter fluid and a match.
As the flames climbed and crackled, as the smoke rose into the night, I closed my eyes, imagined myself as some grand butterfly emerging from a haunted chrysalis, and finally spoke aloud what had been building in my heart and mind for quite some time: “There is no God. There is no Jesus. There is no heaven, and there is no hell. There is only the Universe and the things that populate it. I reject faith. I reject religion. I reject the Bible. And I finally renounce any affiliation with these things, as well as any and all lingering, persistent, nagging tendencies that want to drag me back into bondage. I resolve to unlearn all the lies I've believed. I resolve to embrace the truth, which is that there is nothing out there but empty space and spinning matter, that death is the end of all consciousness, that there is no such thing as sin, that I am not guilty, that it is far better to know than to believe, and that the only standard to which I ought to look is myself. I now officially renounce Christianity. I renounce Jesus. I renounce the resurrection. I renounce the Christian message. I renounce theism. I am now an atheist. I'm no longer a slave to fear.”
Instantly, a wave of euphoria unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life washed over me. I felt free. I felt clean. I felt like the new creation that the Bible speaks about but which was never forthcoming at any point during my Christian journey. I felt alive, as though the shackles were gone. I was now permitted (I didn't need some hypothetical deity's permission; I had my own permission now) to look at myself, at the world, and indeed at everything from a renewed perspective--not with a new lens, but with no lens! I could look at everything just as it was, not as how I was taught it was supposed to be. I felt so free that I began to laugh hysterically. And then I wept. I wept so deeply and so intensely that I cannot even describe the fullness of my joy. I had finally been redeemed. I was finally free.
After all, what is true inner freedom? What would that look like? The Christian says freedom can only be found in Jesus Christ. But the Christian does not know that Jesus is real, he only believes Jesus is real. If he knew it, his faith would be unnecessary. Superfluous. There must be a level of uncertainty regarding his belief for faith to apply. Thus, the Christian is deriving his brand of freedom from a “maybe.” His freedom is the result of a mere possibility. In fact, the entirety of the Christian's life is built not on certainties but on possibilities--unlikely possibilities. And how does the Christian define the freedom he claims to possess? Freedom is described in Christianity as the ability to openly serve God without constraints, to become all God would have you become, to say “no” to sin when you are being tempted, and to possess the capability to consistently live in a godly way. That's the practical side. On the theological side, freedom in Christianity implies that your sin-account has been deleted and that you are now at peace with God. All of this sounds pretty great, sure. Nevertheless, it is again contingent upon mere possibilities, not certainties. This is a freedom that exists only in theory, and it becomes real to you only insofar as you train yourself to believe it.
But as I stood next to that smoldering fire, weeping and basking in total joy, I was experiencing a completely foreign sort of freedom. This freedom that was totally present in the moment; there was no need to convince myself of it through the use of faith. This was a freedom that felt very real, very tangible, encompassing, and absolutely certain. There was no “maybe” here. There was only the assurance that genuine freedom means a human is welcome to just be whatever he is at any given point. I understood this very deeply in that moment. In other words, having trudged through the realm of Christian doctrine for so long, it was a staggering thought to me that I no longer had to apologize for being born. I no longer had to feel guilt over my instincts. I no longer had to be ashamed of my humanity. There was nothing I needed to apologize for, nothing for which I had to hang my head in disgrace. I was free to just be another human on this planet. I was free to be whatever I wanted to be. I was free to like myself because there was no one telling me I was wicked.
However, though this was a moment of joy, you must understand that it was also a moment of sadness, a moment of loss, a sour moment of coming to terms with almost two decades of misguidedness. I was in agony--and when I say “agony,” I want you to know that I truly mean that. There was a large part of me that did not want Christianity to be false. There was a large part of me that hoped Jesus was real, that God was real, that the Bible was true, and that I hadn't been hoodwinked for almost twenty years over what turned out to be the biggest lie in the history of humanity. I didn't want to think that all of those years had been for nothing. I didn't want to believe that all of those times I had “come before God” in tears with heartbreaking prayers were the sad actions of a man insane--yes, insane, if it turned out that there was no one “up there” listening to me at all--and I was now convinced this was the case. The sense of loss was profound. And though there was joy as well, there was also a lingering sadness that took some time to dispel.
Eventually, the fire died down to mere ashes and I had to return to the regularity of life. I used a stick to snuff out the remainder of the embers, and when I was certain the fire was completely out, I walked back to my car an utterly new man, a true new creation. Indeed, there was a palpable impression of having just undergone some kind of cosmic molting, of having thrown off the tremendous burden of mental oppression. I felt like nearly two decades of baggage and heavy expectations--expectations that no human could possibly meet--had been obliterated. There was a strong sense of metamorphosis, of revolution, of punching through to an entirely new stratum of existence--and my excitement overwhelming.
When I got inside my car and shut the door, I noticed a large crucifix attached to the church's brick wall, on the side that faced the street. This was new; it hadn't been there in 1999 when I last attended this church. I paused for a brief moment, looking at the familiar, twisted figure hanging on that cross with outstretched arms and a horrified grimace on his face.
“You're not who I thought you were,” I said to it. “You're just a hunk of wood, a tired myth from the ancient world. I'm done with you forever.”
I drove back home feeling a profound sense of having just completed a long and arduous voyage. But the end of one voyage is always the beginning of another…
(This has been an excerpt from my atheistic memoir, Portrait of an Infidel.